“Perhaps you feel that I am straying from my announced subject, which is Mrs. Fitzgerald. Yet it is impossible, as you see, for me to single her out from among all those others who composed the larger picture of our life as we lived it there upon that mountain at that time. Sometimes I see a vast painting like a diorama, yet in the style of Brueghel, densely populated with colorful people spread out over the rolling slopes doing odd things perhaps, yet each one integral to the whole, and safe within the frame.” Lee Smith, GUESTS ON EARTH
It’s 1936 when orphaned thirteen-year-old Evalina Toussaint is admitted to Highland Hospital, a mental institution in Asheville, North Carolina, known for its innovative treatments for nervous disorders and addictions. Taken under the wing of the hospital’s most notable patient, Zelda Fitzgerald, Evalina witnesses cascading events that lead up to the tragic fire of 1948 that killed nine women in a locked ward, Zelda among them. Author Lee Smith has created, through a seamless blending of fiction and fact, a mesmerizing novel about a world apart–in which art and madness are luminously intertwined.
I have avoided reading GUESTS ON EARTH for some time because the end of Zelda Fitzgerald’s life is painful for me to encounter, and the Zelda “trend” (three Zelda novels releasing around the same time my own novel CALL ME ZELDA was published) caused me a degree of stress I do not remember fondly. More than a year later, I was finally able to dig in, and though I found some unsettling similarities between my novel and GUESTS that I can only attribute to the power of Jung’s collective unconscious I’m very glad I read it.
GUESTS ON EARTH is taut and captivating, a vivid and moving account of one girl’s life as she progresses from a difficult childhood to an even more difficult adulthood. As Smith reveals in the author’s note, she has special insight into the subject of mental illness because both her father and her son were patients at Highland Hospital in Asheville, NC. Smith’s handling of mental illness is controlled, insightful, and gives new understanding.
Zelda is a character in the novel, but is not featured prominently, so if you are looking for a more biographical account in novel form, read Therese Fowler’s Z or R. Clifton Spargo’s BEAUTIFUL FOOLS. Book clubs, in particular, will get much out of reading GUESTS ON EARTH, especially in tandem with the other Zelda novels. I highly recommend the book to anyone who enjoys character-driven historical fiction; it has a cast the reader will not forget.
Have you read GUESTS ON EARTH? Have you read any of the other Zelda novels? How do you think they compare?